Jobless blacks are jumping back faster into the workforce


Note: Seasonally adjusted; Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics via Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Jobless blacks are taking full-time work at a higher rate than unemployed whites, amid a more favorable economy for a population whose prospects have historically been dimmer than for other races.
The data, reflected in the chart above, suggest a greater willingness by jobless blacks to accept relatively low wages, while many whites continue to sit out the sizzling economy.
The 3.7% U.S. unemployment rate is at a whopping 49-year low, according to the September jobs report released today by the government. It was the 96th straight month of job gains, a new record.
  • Among blacks, the unemployment rate ticked down to 6% from 6.3% the previous month. And here’s another, less-talked about statistic:
  • The share of the employed black population is converging closer to whites than it's been since the government began tracking the metric in 1972.
A strong economy does not undo racism, and the same hurdles that make it difficult to find work have not disappeared. But a tighter labor market forces employers to look outside their usual pool of candidates to find workers.
  • Historically, joblessness disappears faster for whites, so the length of the economic recovery — the second-longest in history — is also key.
  • Black unemployment was significantly higher than white joblessness during the Great Recession. So blacks have a lot more to rebound from. A steady, strengthening economy allows the time to do that.
The population we're talking about is non-institutionalized, but if it did include people in prison, the percentages might be even closer, since the rate of blacks in prison is falling.
This dynamic — the convergence of the white and black employment-to-population ratios — is occurring despite wages not growing as much as they could be, said William Spriggs, chief economist at the AFL-CIO. Last month, average hourly earnings grew 2.8% from the same month last year.
But pay for blacks is still significantly less than other races.
  • One example: Median weekly earnings for white, full-time workers is $907, while blacks made $683, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • "We are responding to low wages, but white people aren't," Spriggs told Axios.
Another economist agreed.
  • "There is some truth to the fact that if it's difficult to get a job or secure a job in a good or bad economy, you're not going to be extremely overly picky about it," said Valerie Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute's Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy.
I spoke to a few workers in Harlem about their motivation for taking work. None of their reasons had to do with pay:
  • Tray Baynard, who is black, re-entered the workforce 3 weeks ago and took a pay cut. The 27-year-old was hired as a construction worker at World Class Demolition in New York with a salary of $18 an hour, significantly less than the $26 he earned at his previous job. "I'm not getting paid as much, but it's a job so I took it," he said.
  • Onique Morris, who is also black, accepted a teaching position at New York-based P.S. 79 without shopping around for a better salary. "I would have taken it no matter what the pay was," said Morris, who is studying for a master's degree in education.
  • Another black worker, Terrence Riley, left a job at a Carolina Herrera retail shop after two years, and went on to be a production coordinator at Oscar de la Renta. Riley said opportunity outweighed other factors, including pay.
 Black unemployment is close to historic lows, but remains almost double that of white unemployment, which is at 3.3%. Still, blacks are locking down more jobs or at least feeling confident enough to try.